Thursday, January 31

Fallibilism – A different kind of faith

There are two types of religious practice. First there is religion as neurosis, a desperate clinging to false certainties. And then there is religion as faith that gives people the strength to let go of false certainties, to unwrap their eyes, and plunge into reality. Fallibilism is a non-religious faith of the second kind.

One way of drawing the distinction between what I will be calling ‘fallibilism’ and ‘infallibilism’ is this: Infallibilism believes that every worldview must rest on a foundation of certainty; fallibilism believes that every worldview floats on top of irresolvable uncertainty. Infallibilism believes in assent because of certainty; fallibilism believes in assent in spite of uncertainty.

I would claim that the first is spiritually deadening; and the second spiritually liberating.

While fallibilism admits to being just one faith among others, it also makes it clear that not all faiths are born equal: Where bad faiths are full of crap, good faiths are credible. Good faiths rely on evidence wherever they can grab it, and fall back on grudging trust only for the big remaining uncertainties. Fallibilism, though a “faith” in that it acknowledges its bottomless nature, is therefore something that even the most tough-minded sceptic can subscribe to. In some ways it simply is the most brutally honest scepticism.

Fallibilism is not the same as ideological atheism; it is all about avoiding an ideological mindset. So while organised religion may be a target of harsh treatment, it is not alone – doctrinaire positivism and Platonism in mathematics, to name only two other targets, can expect to be treated equally harshly. True, there is a strong natural affinity between atheism and fallibilism. However, while maintaining religious belief may be an uphill struggle for a fallibilist, it is not logically impossible. (For a recent example of someone trying to reconcile fallibilism – or something very close to it – with Christianity look at Andrew Sullivan’s ‘The conservative soul’. His take on Catholicism does not ultimately succeed, I believe, but his effort shows that no logical impossibility prevents one from trying. Theologies reaching in the direction of fallibilism are in fact a historical constant, with each age generating its own remodelled version.)

There are ways of fudging the issue with at least certain streams of religion: With religious liberals, with pomo conservatives (“emergents”), and – perhaps surprisingly – with some ultraorthodox/überreactionaries the cracks can be papered over without any need for a deep enmity. They are already temperamentally quite close to fallibilism in their actual practices. The engagement could even generate a certain creative friction that is mutually appreciated.

When it comes to what might be called the mainstream of religious conservatism – where people are unambiguously committed to versions of what I call infallibilism – there is not much point in attempting to hide the realities. So I will not mince my words.

What the New Atheists Dawkins, Harris, et al serve up is science garnished with some fragments of disappointingly bad philosophy. It doesn’t even come close to covering the same space as a religious worldview. Fallibilism, on the other hand, admits to being an alternative faith, and does cover the whole space: It provides a complete philosophy of truth and value and more. So while Dawkins, Harris, et al only manage to nip the shoulder, fallibilism is the philosophical equivalent of going for the jugular – a full-frontal, deadly attack on the underpinnings of everything that is most dear to religious conservatives. Let’s just say I’m not expecting much love, or interest.

One way of couching fallibilism in familiar religious language is to call it a universalised prohibition on idolatry. The Protestant doctrine of inerrancy for scripture makes an idol out of a book. The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility makes an idol out of an office. The positivist doctrine of verificationism makes an idol out of data.

Fallibilism can also be expressed by using the metaphor of original sin. Yet there are important differences from the Christian concept: For fallibilism, original sin is a matter of degrees; it is possible to reduce it at the margin. But it can never be cured or gotten out of, so people touting a cure – Salvation through Jesus; Progress through Science – are, from a fallibilist perspective, selling snake oil.

Fallibility is the natural state of evolved beings. Calling the natural state sinful or bad implies the attainability of a superior, non-fallen state. But there is no such state outside of fallibility, no religious or scientific or other short-cut.

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